Avoid Nominalisation Copulation

In other words, don’t confuse your readers by combining multiple nouns into long strings.

The problem

In the latest edition of The Oxford Guide to Plain English, Martin Cutts describes this problem:

In most well-written sentences, nouns tend not to lie next to each other. Normally starved of familiar company, when they are eventually bundled together by an unthinking author, they often couple promiscuously and spawn that loathsome love child of business writers, the noun string.

Noun strings are hard to understand, partly as the main noun comes at the end (so you’re relying on the reader to retain all the words in the string before finding out what they apply to) and partly as it’s not always clear how the nouns relate to each other.

Long noun phrases may also include other word types – often adjectives or participles – thrown in for good measure.


We mentioned noun strings in Pikestaff 15, where we lamented the over-long name of an otherwise admirable regulation: Northern Ireland Personal Current Account Banking Market Investigation Order.

Other examples, from Martin’s book, include:

• National Performance Framework Service Delivery Plan
• Employee Job Consultation (Appraisal) Scheme
• community capacity enhancement initiative
• affordable housing special/specific needs provision targets
• advanced practice succession planning development pathway.

And here’s a couple more, sent to the email forum of the Plain Language Association InterNational by Janet Pringle and Anita Stuever, which illustrate the tendency for noun strings to be ambiguous:
• Dog bite victim support group
• Voluntary Accidental Death and Dismemberment Plan.

Our advice
As we said in Pikestaff 15, we’d usually recommend no more than 2 or – at a push – 3 modifiers per noun in documents we edit. So we’d have renamed the banking order:

Market Investigation Order on Personal Current Bank Accounts in Northern Ireland.

In other words, try to move the main noun towards the front of the phrase, adding prepositions (words like ‘of’, ‘for’, ‘to’ and ‘with’) to show how the components relate to each other. So, instead of ‘service user suggestion scheme’ and ‘advanced practice development needs analysis tool’, Martin’s book suggests ‘suggestion scheme for users of
our service’ and ‘needs analysis tool for advanced practice development’.

Used with permission: Pikestaff the newsletter of the UK’s Plain Language Commission

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